Review: Max Payne 3 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Max Payne 3
Developer: Rockstar
Publisher: Rockstar
Genre: Third Person Shooter
Release Date: 05/15/2012

It has been nearly a decade since the last entry in the Max Payne series. To put that into perspective, when Max Payne 2 was released, Facebook had not yet launched, it would be a couple years before Twitter existed, and people still used AOL as an online service without shame. Some people still do the latter, but they should be ashamed. Times have changed, and so has the developer, with Rockstar developing the game internally instead of Remedy Entertainment. With so much time having passed and a different developer at the wheel, fans have questioned if it would still feel like a Max Payne game, and if it would be any good.

The answer to both is a resounding yes.

I am a fan of the first two games, in no small part because I like the film noir style of storytelling used in those games. The second game laid the pulp-style on a little thick, but I still loved every over the top metaphor used in the game. Max Payne 3 keeps this style of storytelling, toning down the pulp dialogue but otherwise managing to tell an amazing story in the same style as the first game. They do this through a number of different methods and tricks which show that, in terms of cinematic storytelling, Rockstar might be the best developer out there.

Our rating system requires that I rate the graphics, sound and story in different categories, dissecting the game with the cold precision of an autopsy. With Max Payne 3, I’m unable to really do that, because all of them play a part in how the story is told in the game. The story is told through Max’s inner dialogue that weaves different scenes together, quickly giving background about the situation, how it is connected and Max’s feelings about it. Unlike the previous Max Payne games, these are fully rendered cutscenes instead of comic storyboards. These cutscenes are wonderfully produced, using camera angles that really bring the scene to life, but work to also give the whole thing a feeling as though you are watching a movie or a TV show. In addition to the camera work, there are a number of filters and effects going on. There is a color filter that causes motion blur and other effects that attempt to capture the scene as though you are watching it through a haze of alcohol and painkillers, like Max Payne does. It’s like seeing the world through the bottom of a bourbon glass. I can see this effect possibly annoying some people; however, I thought it was great. Some game developers use the first person view because it’s easier to show the player things from the character’s perspective that way. Rockstar instead uses these filters to give an impression on how Max views the world around him.

The voice acting is flat out amazing through the whole game, with no weak character voices, and with James McCaffery, the voice of Max Payne in the first two games, putting in another strong performance as Max. A lot of the game takes place in Brazil, so there is also a lot of dialogue in Portuguese, but you do not need to understand the language to know what is going on. A lot of it is just swearing and ‘what are you doing here?’ and so on, anyway. You can turn the subtitles on if you wish to learn how to say “son of a bitch” in Portuguese, as along with gringo, it is one of the more common terms the enemies will use. Max doesn’t know what they are saying either, so your confusion will be reflected on the screen with his confusion. Also, during the cutscenes when people speak, occasionally the words pop up on screen in order to lend more emphasis to what is being said, which adds to the effect the dialogue has. The background music also works great, and all of the guns sound powerful. There are different sounds for running across different surfaces, enemies call out to each other, and so on. No expense was spared in creating a top notch atmosphere for this game.

Small details really add to the story as it progresses. Max will grow a beard that will actually grow thicker from chapter to chapter. A wound from one scene will appear as a scar later on. They’ve really thought through all of the scenes to make sure there is a sense of the world progressing as the story does. Even some minor things that you see in other games, like starting an area with different weapons, is explained in the scenes that precede it.

None of these details would matter much if the story they accentuated smelled worse than week old garbage. As mentioned earlier, though, the story is amazing. They’ve continued the storyline in a way that makes sense when considering the prior games, with Max being an alcoholic who also has an addiction to pain killers, which, frankly, just makes sense given the amount of them he takes in the other games. He is still a man whose life revolves around the opening moments of the first game, still grieving for the family he lost to violence. He can’t get past it, and while he is unwilling to take his own life, he is willing to put himself into situations which might lead to his death. I don’t want to give away any of the story, but it keeps moving forward with new twists and turns, and throughout it all, Max’s motivations are understandable given his history. He is a cynical, broken action hero, but the story makes him easy to empathize with all the same.

I love stories, and Rockstar has outdone themselves here, creating something that works with the previous games, while being something that also stands alone as a great story. It truly is one of the few games that makes you feel as though you are playing through an action movie. Well, a good action movie, like Die Hard, and not a mediocre action movie, like Live Free or Die Hard.

Of course, most of that is just a description of the unplayable parts of Max Payne 3, which, while impressive, just prove that Rockstar can make a really great digital movie. The interactive parts are sort of important as well. Thankfully, those are also really good.

The graphics don’t only enhance the cut-scenes, they also greatly enhance the game as well. Backgrounds are extremely detailed, with an insane amount of attention paid to littering the backgrounds with random debris that make the areas really looked lived in. The favelas look dirty compared to the orderly office buildings, for instance. The physics engine makes the areas also come alive. You hit a stack of paperwork with a bullet and papers fly into the air, as an example, and the ways different types of bullets punch through the glass in different ways is impressive. Cover can be shot apart, so if an enemy stands behind some concrete bricks you can shatter them. Shatter one and the rest will fall realistically. There is one small nitpick tough; one of the things I remember about Max Payne was that you could interact with the environment. Pop (or Soda, depending on were you are from) machines would dispense cans, magic finger machines would vibrate the beds, and so on. Despite all the details here, I do wish that there was more to interactivity with the surroundings than just seeing what bullets do to different objects.

The detail in the physics extends to physical damage. This is the only third person shooter I can think of that actually pays attention to exit wounds, and I gotta tell you, even with being desensitized by gory movies and video games, it is both viscerally violent and kind of gross. When you shoot the last enemy in an area, the game will switch to a slow motion camera, that you can slow down further, while you pump lead into them. Shoot an enemy in the forehead and it will show you, in detail, the bullet exploding out of the back of their skull. Use an automatic weapon, and the body will do a little jig in the air from the impact of the bullets, then turn into a bloody sprinkler, squirting blood out of all the new holes you just put into the guy.

I was a little worried about how the game would play because, as much as I love some other Rockstar games, the shooting has never really been my favorite parts of those games. It’s always been adequate, but never something I felt was as well done as a game that revolves around such things. Considering the prior Max Payne games have been pretty much just shooting things, I was worried about Rockstar being able to deliver. The shooting feels great though. I played through using Free-Aim, though there are different options to increase the auto assist, from partial to nearly full assist. The aiming still felt kind of slow for me, so I turned the aiming options up a bit, and I’d suggest doing so if you are used to other third person action games. Even with Free-Aim, my cursor was tugged slightly in the direction of an enemy, so there is always a little auto assist.

Otherwise, the controls will be easy to pick up for anyone. The left joystick moves, while the right aims. The left trigger focuses aim a little bit more, the left bumper pulls up the weapon select screen (tapping it in multiplayer throws grenades), the right trigger shoots, the right bumper initiates the shoot dodge technique, B reloads, Y interacts with the environment or picks up dropped weapons, A is for running or climbing, X moves to cover, clicking the right joystick enters bullet time, clicking the left one crouches, up on the D-pad uses painkillers, left and right change which shoulder you aim over, and down spins the aim 180 degrees. The game doesn’t really teach you about the other D-pad abilities, but they’re hardly used in the game, and the 180 degree spin is more useful for multiplayer.

The game controls well and aiming feels fine. The third person movement can sometimes feel a little awkward though, as Max doesn’t move very fast, and the cover mechanic still feels a little rough compared to some other games, meaning that there are times you will stick to the cover when you want to move away from it. You will not want to be behind cover much in the game anyway, as the enemy AI is smart and will flank you or find other ways of flushing you out. Shoot dodging works well, but sometimes the physics engine will get in the way. There are a lot of smaller rooms in the game with furniture scattered around, and if you shoot dodge wrong Max, might slightly hit an object, stopping the shoot dodge and making him fall clumsily to the ground.

The game uses the bullet time system from Max Payne 2, meaning you get more bullet time for killing enemies. So kill more enemies, get more bullet time, use bullet time to kill more enemies, repeat. This works well, and they’ve added a Last Man Standing system to the game. If you have painkillers stored and someone is about to get a kill shot on Max, the game shifts into bullet time and Max will have a limited time to kill that enemy before he dies. If the enemy gets killed first, a painkiller is subtracted and Max lives. This works really well, however, often you exit the Last Man Standing mode with Max flat on the ground and in a perfect position to be treated like a pinata for bullets. While effective in saving Max’s life, it comes at the risk of being caught in a bad position, so it is better off just trying to use painkillers before Max’s health reaches the point where Last Man Standing mode might occur.

With bullet time, shoot dodging, and Last Man Standing abilities, it might seem that the game would be a walk in the park. This is not the case. I played through on Medium and it provided a good challenge. The AI is great, not only at maneuvering into good shooting angles, but also with shooting accuracy, and Max takes damage quickly. Later in the game, enemies will wear bullet proof vests and helmets to make it even more difficult. The game is harder if you try to play it like any other cover based shooting game, and making the best use of bullet time and shoot dodging is required to make it through some of the later levels. There are easier difficulties available, as well as different levels of auto aim assist to make the game easier, and two unlockable difficulty levels for those who prefer more of a challenge.

The game does try to strike a balance between being difficult and being impossible to continue. If you die several times in one area, the next time you respawn at a checkpoint, the game will give the player additional bonuses. For example, if you die three times or more in a row, it will give you additional bullet time, more ammo and additional painkillers. The game gradually increases the bonuses until you are able to get through that checkpoint. It is a subtle way of keeping the game from having a roadblock moment. I know once I benefited from this, as I was nearly out of ammo and had no painkillers, and the next part would’ve been nearly impossible to progress through because of that, but after getting killed a few times I suddenly had enough ammo to make it through that part. I think it is a great way of compromising without needing to lower the difficulty or give up on a section.

While the game can be played again at harder difficulty levels, there is also a fully implemented multiplayer mode within the game. The multiplayer sort of feels like if you crossed the player versus player modes of Grand Theft Auto 4 and mixed it with the advancement system from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. There are character classes, and you unlock the ability to customize a class as well. You gain experience as you play, and once you’ve gained enough experience you level up, unlocking more character skins, weapons and abilities. Weapons level independently of the player’s level, and you can unlock attachments for the weapons by continuing to level them up. There are challenges called Grinds that you can complete for extra experience points. There are separate servers for soft lock aiming and free aim. As of this writing, the online population is still low, but the majority of people are playing in the soft lock rooms.

Personally, I like the Call of Duty advancement system, I just wish it would remain in Call of Duty. Everyone uses it now because it is popular, but I feel it unbalances the multiplayer heavily towards those who spend more time playing, who already hold an advantage from playing longer anyway. In Max Payne 3 when you start multiplayer you are limited to playing with other new players, which mitigates this problem for a little bit, since everyone is around the same level.

The system works for this game, and Rockstar has some unique features for multiplayer. The signature bullet time effect is present in multiplayer; how it works is that one player activates bullet time, and any enemy within their sight will feel the slow down effect while the player activating will still move around in real time. This works well. The bullet time is called a Burst effect, of which there are several other types of effects that the player can gain, with different tactics for each. Burst effects are used by gaining adrenaline in multiplayer. There is a meter on the screen for adrenaline, and depending on how much you fill the adrenaline meter, it can cause different levels of Burst effects. There is a Burst for healing damage, for instance, and the highest level will greatly heal everyone on your team. There are a lot of different abilities that can be unlocked as you advance in levels in multiplayer. As you gain in experience, you also gain cash, which can also be gained through gambling in the lobby on certain outcomes, to use to purchase weapons and gear. These can be mixed with the abilities to different effects. For example, there is a Burst to look like a member of the opposing team, which can really wreak havoc, but there is a piece of gear that disables that effect. Weapons and Gear have weight, and the more weight a character has, the lower their movement and recovery speeds are, so it’s important to not load a character down.

They’ve added a Crew system, where you can be a part of a gang, with added benefits for being a part of one, including the fact that the Crews will carry over to the Grand Theft Auto multiplayer. There are some interesting game modes in multiplayer, such as Gang Wars and Payne Killer. Gang Wars brings the players through a series of five rounds, with different objectives that are determined by the result of the previous round. This really gives a great sense of progression not normally found between rounds in a multiplayer game, as well as an element of randomness. Payne Killer starts of like Team Deathmatch, only the first person to shoot and the first person that gets shot turn into Max Payne and Raul Passos; after that it is those two players against everyone else. Those who kill one of the protagonists then turn into the character they kill and switch roles with that player. Like Gang Wars, it is really an interesting way of putting a new spin on the typical Juggernaut mode found in many multiplayer games.

The maps are well done, with different levels and areas that support whatever your game style is, from sniping to close quarters combat, though the only thing is, I wish there were more of them. Of course, there are more coming with the DLC, but I played through all of the maps in multiplayer while I was still in the rookie playlists, and can see that they might get old fast for some players.

The game also has additional arcade modes. There is the basic arcade mode, where you try and rack up the highest score, with skillful play resulting in higher scores and multiplier bonuses. There is also a mode called New York Minute, which is similar to the arcade mode, in that it distills the game down to the bare action, only with a different twist. It is single player, and you run through the map on a timer, killing enemies and performing actions which will add time to a clock. They had a similar mode in Rainbow Six: Black Arrow, for those that remember that game. It’s an interesting addition that works well with the game and adds replayability.

As a fan of the prior games, the single player aspect was the portion of the game I was mostly concerned with, though the multiplayer and arcade modes are something Rockstar has obviously spent a lot of time designing, and they plan on supporting for awhile with future DLC. If you are a fan of the Call of Duty style progression systems and previous multiplayer efforts from Rockstar games, then you’ll be hooked to the multiplayer in Max Payne 3.

To wrap it up, Rockstar not only succeeded in creating a great game in the Max Payne series, they’ve made what I consider to be the best one yet. The action is tightly woven into a well written narrative, the production values are insane, and seeing bullets destroy enemies in slow motion is beautifully horrific. I would like to see a little more diversity in terms of in-game mechanics in future Max Payne games, Stanglehold was released a few years ago and experimented more with different slow motion mechanics in the single player, but otherwise I don’t think anyone could possibly ask for more. A strong single player and a fully implemented multiplayer make Max Payne 3 worth the time to check out whether you are new to the series or an old fan coming back for more.

The Scores
Story: Amazing
Graphics: Amazing
Sound: Incredible
Control: Classic
Replayability: Classic
Balance: Classic
Originality: Decent
Addictiveness: Amazing
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Amazing

Short Attention Span Summary:
I went from being skeptical to blown away. Max Payne 3 is a well produced, complete package that is also straight up fun.



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